Six Generations of US War Opposition

The United States today may be the planet’s greatest ever war maker, but the wars are fought, the bases maintained, and the weapons manufactured against the will of the majority of U.S. citizens. We express our opposition to wars openly in ways that could not be done at all until around 1880, and in so doing we almost certainly prevent more war making and limit the tactics our government can employ. In fact, if wars were still fought in the way the U.S. Civil War was fought, with armies on battlefields, we would probably have ended war forever some generations back. Instead, the progressive blogosphere, what passes for our anti-war fourth estate, just gathered in Las Vegas with little or no awareness or notice given to the fact that wars half-way around the world were being fought from drone control booths just down the road.

Cynthia Wachtell’s excellent new book “War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature 1861-1914” tells a story of war opposition overcoming self-deceptions, self-censorship, the censorship of the publishing industry, and public unpopularity, and establishing itself as a constant thread and genre of U.S. literature (and cinema) ever since.

In the years leading up to and including the Civil War, war — almost by definition — could not be opposed in literature. Under the heavy influence of Sir Walter Scott, war was presented as an idealized and romantic endeavor. Death was painted with soft tones of desirable sleep, natural beauty, and chivalric glory. Wounds and injuries did not appear. Fear, frustration, stupidity, resentment and other features so central to war in reality did not exist in its fictionalized form.

“Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character,” remarked Mark Twain, “as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war.” Northern character bore a striking resemblance to the Southern variety. “If the North and South could agree on little else during the war years,” Wachtell writes, “they were in easy agreement about their literary preferences. Whether their allegiance was to the Confederacy or the Union, readers wanted to be reassured that their sons, brothers, and fathers were playing parts in a noble endeavor that was favored by God. Popular wartime writers drew on a shared vocabulary of highly sentimentalized expressions of pain, sorrow, and sacrifice. Less rosy and idealized interpretations of the war were unwelcome.”

We’re still living off this antiquated pro-war literature today. It roams the land like a zombie, just as surely as creationism, global-warming denial, racism, and other forms of teabaggery. It shapes congress members’ servile reverence for David Petraeus as surely as it would if he fought with a sword and a horse rather than a desk and a television studio.

During and following the Civil War, newer and more honest depictions of war began to make their way onto paper and into the public discourse, including words flowing from the hands of Herman Melville, John William De Forest, Walt Whitman, Ambrose Bierce, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Ernest Crosby, Stephen Crane, Joseph Kirkland, Frank Stockton, William James, George Kirkpatrick, and many others. Walt Whitman seems to embody the transition. This greatest of self deceivers or salesmen of false hope once wrote:

“Has anyone supposed it lucky to be born?
“I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.”

That was before Whitman saw the filth and gore and misery of war. These he continued to hide partially from himself and more fully from his readers, limiting his most honest writing to private diaries, but publishing these lines:

“O well it is their mothers, their sisters cannot see them — cannot conceive, and never conceived, these things.”

This from the poet of democracy who knew full well that “these things” would continue until conceived of and opposed, but who could never quite bring himself to doubt their higher purpose.

Wachtell takes us through the uneven and complicated steps forward from a world in which anti-war writing by Melville and De Forest could not be sold. By the time we get to Ambrose Bierce, self-censorship has been replaced by aggressive denunciation of war and equation of war with what its component parts would be at any other time: horrendous and immoral crimes. And such writing was popular for the first time. The military forbid soldiers to read two of Bierce’s books during World War I, but civilians could read them and did so.

As writing about war was advancing, so — in the opposite direction — was technology. Smokeless gun powder may have made the horrific blood of war more visible, but advances in weaponry meant a greater ability to kill at a distance, just as later advances — above all the airplane — would. Hawthorne thought that ironclad ships and other technological “advances” would put an end to heroism. And they did. We simply pretended they didn’t. And Hawthorne knew that heroism in war had been a pretense all along. He even dared to write about its pretentious nature in the context of the American Revolution.

Mark Twain and Ernest Crosby not only described war with more complete honesty (and still more completely in Twain’s autobiography just released), but they mocked and ridiculed the justifications of its supporters. Crosby’s parody of Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” reads, in part:

Take up the White Man’s burden.
Send forth your sturdy kin,
And load them down with Bibles
And cannon-balls and gin.
Throw in a few diseases
To spread the tropic climes,
For there the healthy niggers
Are quite behind the times.
And don’t forget the factories.
On those benighted shores
They have no cheerful iron mills,
Nor eke department stores.
They never work twelve hours a day
And live in strange content,
Altho they never have to pay
A single sou of rent.
Take up the White Man’s burden,
And teach the Philippines
What interest and taxes are
And what a mortgage means.
Give them electrocution chairs,
And prisons, too, galore,
And if they seem inclined to kick,
Then spill their heathen gore.
They need our labor question, too,
And politics and fraud —
We’ve made a pretty mess at home,
Let’s make a mess abroad.
And let us ever humbly pray
The Lord of Hosts may deign
To stir our feeble memories
Lest we forget — the Maine.
Take up the White’s Man’s burden.
To you who thus succeed
In civilizing savage hordes,
They owe a debt, indeed;
Concessions, pensions, salaries,
And privilege and right —
With outstretched hands you raised to bless
Grab everything in sight.
Take up the White Man’s burden
And if you write in verse,
Flatter your nation’s vices
And strive to make them worse.
Then learn that if with pious words
You ornament each phrase,
In a world of canting hypocrites
This kind of business pays.

All right, that was the whole thing, but I couldn’t bring myself to cut any of it out. William James was a unique anti-war writer, and had an answer for the brotherhood, sacrifice, courage, and what we would call the adrenaline rush of war: find it in peaceful industrial projects rather than in killing. Today this impulse would seem to suggest a project to establish an international and life-risking competition in green energy construction. The sad irony is that we’re risking all of our lives by NOT doing this, and we aren’t even pretending to attach any glory to the process.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the late nineteenth century writers who launched the past six generations or so of war opposition. One way in which I think we can measure its latest progress is in these terms: During World War II a photo of a Japanese person burning to death was published in Life magazine with the caption “This is the only way.” By the time of the Vietnam War, some Americans had that same reaction to such images and others had a very different one. Today, so many Americans would react aversely to such scenes that they are not shown. And someday, in the new world we have yet to imagine into being, those same photos or videos will carry the caption “There has to be another way.”

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